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How Development Management Can Solve The Problems Of India’s Social Sector

Monday, May 29, 2017, 10:14

By Ravi Sreedharan, founder of Indian School of Development Management

While the ‘Indian’ civilisation may even date back to 5500 years ago, India as an ‘independent’ nation is only 70 years old. As we complete 70 years of independence, it is a good time to step back and see how far we have come.

In 1947, India had a literacy rate of 12%, life expectancy (at birth) of 32 years, a sky-high poverty rate, widespread epidemics (like plague, malaria, tuberculosis), nearly no infrastructure or electricity, very few schools and colleges and limited access to villages. The world thought that this was a ‘basket case’ and that India would soon call the Brits back to ‘save them’.

But, we did amazingly well – and in 70 years, our literacy rate has shot up to 74%. Life expectancy, today, is at 68 years. Poverty levels are down to 22%, as well. Our infrastructure, schools, hospitals, health centres, roads, etc. have all come a long way (as described in Shashi Tharoor’s latest book).

The social sector or the development sector in India has played a major role in this progress. Despite being a large and complex country, we have become a vibrant democracy, thanks to an active development sector. We are among the few countries that have progressive reforms like the Right to Information and Right to Education. We have a progressive Constitution and a clearly-defined ‘idea of India’ captured beautifully in the Preamble of the Constitution.

However, after seven years of working deep and wide in the development sector, I have realised that there is a problem in applying conventional business management ideas in the social sector.

Here are some ideas that will not make sense intuitively to a ‘business management’ mind:

1. There is no such thing as ‘poor people’ – there is ‘poverty’.

2. Affirmative action is not only about economic equality.

3. Livelihood is not just about creating jobs, but also about addressing complex societal issues – ranging from cultural norms and values to security and health issues, education, dignity, inter-generational equations, and more.

4. Addressing issues of education is not just about teachers and schools, but also about issues related to community – culture, values, gender, health, nutrition, sanitation, rights, ecology, language, agriculture cycles, livelihood, hunger, poverty, etc.

5. Even solving the problem of open defecation is not only about building functional toilets, but also about changing complex behaviours, beliefs and attitudes.

The same subjects will be different or nuanced when it comes to business management and development management. Whether it is ‘talent management’ and understanding the reasons for joining/staying/leaving, or the kind of cultures that will motivate and inspire, or ‘finance’ and looking at questions like returns on investments, understanding the ‘monetary value’ of some social good (like gender equality), or ‘communication and engagement’, ‘systems thinking’, ‘organisation behaviour and dynamics’ – they are all quite different.

After discussions with numerous leading practitioners in the sector across the country, and even around the world, there was a universal agreement that it makes absolute sense to develop the field of ‘development management’ as a distinct discipline. In fact, there is a crying need for doing this.

This new discipline would require high quality, world-class institutions that can make a difference to the sector and society, as its foundation. These institutions will provide the much-needed vibrant and active learning environment to the brightest minds passionate about social change. The institutions will also be at the forefront of research for a deeper understanding of the complex multitude of factors that affect development issues. It is very important to realise here that great development management institutions will be created through collective wisdom and collective philanthropy.